MANHATTAN, Kan. - You would think Nebraska would be used to these kinds of games by now.
Judging from the faces of the players as the walked off the Bramlage Coliseum court to the locker room, though, Wednesday's loss to Kansas State hurt as much as any of them.
Despite their best offensive performance of the Big 12 Conference season, the Huskers once again came up short in a 91-87 loss to No. 7 Kansas State. Even with a season-high 14 3-pointers and shooting 58.3 percent from the field for its highest scoring output in league play in four seasons, NU couldn't hang on long enough to pull off the upset.
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After senior guard Ryan Anderson tied the game at 87-87 with a 3-pointer from the corner with 32.5 seconds left in the game, KSU forward Chris Merriewether was fouled with 24.2 seconds and hit both of his free throws to go up 89-87.
With a chance to tie or win the game on the final possession, senior guard Sek Henry had an open lane but lost control of the ball on the drive. Henry was able to regain possession and kicked the ball out to freshman guard Ray Gallegos.
Trying to swing the ball back around the perimeter, Gallegos' pass was intercepted by Wildcat guard Jacob Pullen, who tossed it down court to fellow guard Denis Clemente for a breakaway lay-up in the final seconds to seal the victory.
Even though they suffered their 10th conference loss of the season and dropped to 13-13 overall, the Huskers say if nothing else, the effort they put forth on the road against one of the best teams in the nation was their first positive in long, long time.
"That says a lot about our team and the toughness that we have," said Anderson, who led NU with a game-high 22 points on 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range. "We've just been on the other end of it. Losing by 3, losing close games. Like Coach said, all we can do is keep giving everything we've got. I think we're doing that. As a leader, I think we're doing that. Our guys fought to the very last second of that game right there."
After taking a 40-39 lead into halftime, Nebraska jumped out to 51-42 advantage with an 11-3 run to open the second half. Following a lay-up by junior point guard Lance Jeter with 17 minutes remaining, however, the Huskers' momentum went ice cold.
The Wildcats responded with a 15-0 run of their own to reclaim the lead, during which NU went nearly seven minutes without a point. Anderson finally ended the drought with a pair of 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 58-57, but KSU continued to come up with big shots when it needed them to maintain the lead through the rest of the game.
The Huskers again came within one shot of taking back the lead after a pair of free throws by freshman forward Brandon Ubel with roughly six minutes left to play, but once again the Wildcats were able to put together a clutch scoring stretch.
This time the Wildcats went on a 9-1 run, highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers by Clemente to bump the lead back up to 75-65 with four minutes remaining.
Though it looked like the Huskers were done for, they kept fighting and hit a string of three straight 3-pointers to come within five at 81-76. It wasn't enough to ever reclaim the lead, though, as Kansas State went a perfect 14-of-14 from the free throw line in the final three minutes to keep NU at bay.
At least until the last minute they did.
After Kansas State hit a pair of free throws to go up 87-78, Nebraska came back with three straight 3-pointers off of two KSU turnovers to tie the game at 87-87 with 32.5 seconds to play.
Merriewether hit both of his free throws after being fouled on the ensuing possession, and the Huskers were left with a chance make one last big play to try and steal an upset victory or send the game into overtime. Unfortunately, Pullen and Clemente were the ones who came up big at the end.
"We made shots, and that was the reason it was close," NU head coach Doc Sadler said. "They have a good basketball team, and they make plays when the need to."
Despite coming into the game as a 14-point underdog, Nebraska gave Kansas State everything it could handle through the first half.
After taking its first lead of the game at 15-14 on a jumper by sophomore guard Brandon Richardson a little less than seven minutes in, a 3-pointer by redshirt freshman guard Eshaunte Jones kicked off an 18-5 run that ended with another Jones 3 and gave the Huskers a 31-21 lead with 8:26 left in the half.
While NU held the lead throughout the half, the Wildcats were able to cut it down to one point by halftime, primarily behind eight straight points by Pullen to close out the half that made it 40-39 at halftime.
Nebraska's 40 first-half points were especially surprising because they came on 63.6 percent shooting from the field (14-of-22). Considering it shot just 28.9 percent in its past two losses to Baylor and Texas, the offensive display was certainly encouraging.
The Huskers return home on Saturday to play host to Missouri at 5 p.m., where they will once again try to get over the hump that has found a way to trip them up since the start of Big 12 play. One thing that is for sure, though, is that Nebraska has no plans of giving up the rest of the way.
"We're definitely frustrated, but we're going to keep playing until there's no more games left," Jeter said. "That's what Coach Doc's motto is, and that's our motto. We're going to keep playing, we're going give everybody our best shot and we're going to keep playing until there's no more games left."